Ghost Recon was looking like the forgotten Ubisoft Tom Clancy franchise, but as with the company’s recent retools of older franchises, the Ghosts are back, veering away from the tactical shooter mould somewhat with a vast open world jaunt for Wildlands, but is it a change for the better?
Into the Wild(lands)
In Ghost Recon: Wildlands, you play as Nomad; part of an elite four man squad from the US, sent into Bolivia to topple Santa Blanca, the largest producer and supplier of cocaine in the whole of South America. So big in fact they effectively own the whole country, so you and your squadmates are tasked with disrupting the cartel’s regime in 21 provinces, before eventually taking down the heads of the whole business. The story and characters are familiar fare if you know anything of the likes of Sicario, Narcos, et al. There’s a pleasant sense of you actually taking down a criminal organisation, but most of that comes through how the game plays rather than because you connect with the characters, who are either majorly underdeveloped, or worse, soulless avatars serving as mere obstacles. The dialogue is….something. Eerily reminiscent of those forced attempts at jovial multiplayer banter Ubisoft put in the trailers for The Division, so equal parts laughable and appalling. Despite that, there’s enough to set up the premise and give your experience some direction, but little more.
You may have raised an eyebrow at the mention of 21 provinces, and rightly so as the entirety of Wildlands map is huge, and often quite beautiful to look at. There’s no denying that the result of such sheer scale of land means that it’s only truly interesting in pockets of it. There’s a fair distinction between the topography of the provinces, with lush jungle giving way to harsh rocky hills, and spreading further to bleak, wintery mountains, but there’s noticeable repetition in terms of building structure, items, and area setups that are at least masked by the surrounding flora and fauna, plus you’ll be pretty busy with hunting down the cartel, and searching for skill points, intel, weapons, weapon parts and more. On its own, there’s little reason to actively explore the game world beyond a cursory glance at the odd breathtaking view, but the hunt for information drives you to set out to all corners of every province to better your squad, and further your campaign to bring down Santa Blanca and its overly-tattooed leader El Sueno. It’s busywork, sure, but at least it’s useful to you, and gives the game more scope as your arsenal grows.
Shooting guns is, of course, a good chunk of the meat of any Ghost Recon, and Wildlands’ supply of shootybangers are a pleasing bunch to get to grips with. There’s enough variance in how they handle and perform to make experimentation worthwhile, but not too stat-obsessed that they become a pain to use. In truth, the game deals far better with slow-paced methodical combat than it does rampant, chaotic firefights. This is what you’re supposed to do after all, strike with tactical military precision, not leaving the enemy enough time to react to your presence, let alone retaliate. The fiddly aspect of Wildlands arrives during more frantic moments mainly because making orders and getting help from rebels are all brought up via a wheel menu by holding R1 and manually selecting whichever option you want. The wheel is just a touch too clunky to swiftly choose your tactics on the fly, again, better suited to when you’re inching into enemy territory unseen.
Speaking of unwieldy controls, helicopters are an aggravating experience. Pitching and elevation are dealt with in the usual stick and shoulder button combo, but turning requires you to hold R2 and direction, then release R2. A needlessly confusing setup that seems to have been created to ensure ‘copters don’t become game-breaking hulks of destruction. As such, they are mostly handy as a means to travel large distances quickly, and occasionally as a good in-and-out blunt force tactical tool. Other vehicles handle far better, with cars feeling a bit arcadey, but the camera doesn’t always swing back as quick as you like, and that causes more than its fair share of silly crashes.
Wild Boys on Tour
Where Wildlands excels is in co-op play. Forming a squad of up to four real people, all mic’d up, is where the breadth of Wildlands’ tactical tools get a proper workout and really show off the best side of the Bolivian provinces.
An example of how good it can be came during my first hour of playing in co-op. Our elite squad has been tasked with obtaining information that’s located in a fortress that’s protected by a large metal gate, two guard posts, and if we’re particularly sloppy, two rows of floodlights that will illuminate the entire area, making us easy prey.
There’s no obvious way in beside this huge gate, but by slipping into the sea either side of the fortress we stealthily swim around the entrance and clamber up embankments. Crawling on our bellies we try to get a fix on the nearby enemy patrol, which going by the size of the red mist clusters on my map, are substantial. A teammate sends up a drone to spot targets, quickly picking out snipers in the towers, three patrolling soldiers, and a congregation of easily-avoidable guards milling about in a building. Our drone-deploying buddy makes an order to take out the snipers simultaneously,. We carefully reposition ourselves and cooly oblige. The ‘thunk, thunk, thunk’ of three silenced bullets hitting three skulls in close succession is an oddly satisfying reward for our team’s co-ordinated efforts, and we press on towards the intel we came for.
Skirting the mass of death-dealing soldiers in that building, we discuss who should go in for the intel, and who should cover the area to make sure any unwitting goons who amble into the wrong place at the wrong time are quickly dispatched. I end up being cover so I stick close to the wandering soldiers that patrol outside the building holding the intel. I’m hunched behind a sandbag as a soldier begins to walk towards my hiding spot, just as my teammate has slunk into the building and has reached the appropriate floor. I’m just about to sneak behind the wandering soldier and silently dispatch him when a cacophony of cries and shouts ring out around the base. A teammate excitedly exclaims that they’ve botched a headshot and alerted the guards.
We need to escape, fast. The sea is the most obvious route, yet with enemies aware of us, it would be suicide. We decide to head for the docks at the end of the stretch of land and make off with a boat, so we battle our way through to the back of the base, reviving each other when the onslaught takes its toll. After plenty of carnage has ensued, we reach the docks and speed away in a boat. A collective sigh of relief is heard. We did it.
There were other ways we could have handled the situation. If we’d stolen an enemy vehicle then we could have picked off the sentries on the door and strolled right through the front gate. Or we could have approached from the dockside by boat, and avoided the security measures altogether. Or, in a madman’s move, we could have rode in on a chopper, mowed down the enemy with death from above, and done a quick in and out smash job. This speaks volumes of Wildlands at its peak. While it may feel somewhat empty and soulless in places, when the meat and potatoes of it is on the table, you’ll continually, happily, eat it up in big mouthfuls.
I only wish the A.I. teammates were even a third as dynamic as real folk. In singleplayer (Wildlands has drop-in, drop-out co-op, so you can go mop up collecting parts and intel on your lonesome) the other three ‘Ghosts’ are A.I. controlled and while they generally do as they’re told, and prove handy in picking of any enemies you’ve marked for them, there’s a fair few instances where they flat out refuse to do as asked, forcing your hand and limiting your tactical capability.
It’s very apparent in the game’s freeform structure, which allows you to tackle any province in any order. It’s a perfect fit for co-op, as you can determine the level of challenge on the fly, and freely flit between objectives, side ops, and general tomfoolery by communicating with your pals. In singleplayer, the unfocused nature of Wildlands is less welcoming, at least to begin with. There’s parts of the map that you simply cannot handle alone, especially if you lack certain equipment. The A.I. buddies become increasingly less helpful the higher the stakes get.
Is Wildlands a Drug Bust?
Ghost Recon Wildlands comes across as a far better tactical open world sandbox than it did during the Betas, but it’s not without its issues. It’s tough to care about the characters or the plot which, at best, come off as a naff fanfic of the opening 25 minutes of Predator spread out into multiple hours. The world is lovely to look at (and even with some amusing glitches it’s probably the most technically solid Ubisoft title in recent history), but outside of enemy camps and strongholds, looking is all there is to it. Co-op is a riot, whilst solo play is decent enough, it’s just not close to being as engrossing. Still, Wildlands is good fun overall, and while it isn’t exactly brimming with personality, it does come into its own when you team up with others.